It’s been an encouraging time for the Toronto Maple Leafs of late, winning 14 of their last 16 games on their way to their winningest calendar month in franchise history.
That kind of run requires high-end performances throughout the lineup and a pair of young Swedish defencemen have held up their end of the bargain. Both 21-year-old Rasmus Sandin and 22-year-old Timothy Liljegren have tilted play in the right direction to a very impressive degree, as each former first-round pick boasts on-ice expected goal rates of 65 percent and positive goal differentials as a result.
In their 150 minutes playing together at 5-on-5, they’ve performed even better, controlling 70 percent of the expected goal share and outscoring their opponents five to three. The Leafs own the shot share 163-113 with those two on the ice and the numbers are nearly identical when Liljegren has been replaced by Travis Dermott. Regardless of whether Sandin has been given Liljegren or Dermott as a running mate, the results have been among the very best in the league amongst pairings with at least 100 minutes of ice time together at 5-on-5.
It’s worth noting that when paired with Dermott, Sandin gets deployed in the offensive zone a lot more often than when Liljegren has been alongside him. Regardless, Sandin’s unit has obviously been deployed as the third pairing, mostly against third and fourth lines, but his pairings have dominated to a degree above and beyond what the team could have reasonably expected early on. For context, Victor Hedman and partner Jan Rutta have been given even cushier zone starts and haven’t fared nearly as well in terms of shots and chances.
The same goes for Torey Krug and Justin Faulk in St. Louis, John Carlson and Martin Fehervary in Washington and Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse in Edmonton. In fact, the only pairing in the league to play over 100 minutes together and own a better share of the expected goals has been the Charlie McAvoy-Matt Grzelcyk pairing in Boston. That duo has been given an even higher percentage of offensive zone starts than Sandin-Dermott and McAvoy has been one of the very best play-driving defenders in the NHL for a while now.
So, the Leafs have tilted the ice to an eye-popping degree with Sandin on the ice whether Dermott or Liljegren is out there with him, but why? I’ve covered Dermott’s game in detail in the past and it mostly still holds up in terms of his style of play, so the remainder of this piece will focus on Sandin-Liljegren. The pair of young Swedes have a lot of similarities in their games, especially in the way they aggressively aim to keep the play in the offensive half of the ice.
Despite not being very big — Sandin is generously listed at 5-foot-11, 177 pounds while Liljegren is listed at 6-foot-1, 192 pounds — neither defender is at all hesitant to step up early in the play in order to prevent the opposition from advancing the puck up ice. Despite Sandin being the smaller player, he is much more likely to lay a memorable hit than Liljegren. The small defender seems to catch opposing players off guard every now and then, as he gets low and identifies when an attacking player doesn’t seem to anticipate a hit coming. Sandin is a quicker skater than Liljegren and his strong edges help him create power when loading up for a hit.
Of course, most of the time the hit ends up being nothing more than a bump, but functionally it works the same way. The attacking forward is stopped in his tracks and the puck is recovered by the Leafs, who then try to get the puck moving back up ice.
Liljegren, on the other hand, is much more likely to use his sound positioning and good defensive stick to achieve the same purpose. It’s a lot less memorable and demands fewer replays, but ultimately it usually ends in his team recovering the puck and starting an attempted breakout up the ice.
One thing that’s notable here is how far Liljegren has come in this department since being drafted 17th overall in 2017. Liljegren was drafted with a reputation for being an offensive defenceman whose NHL career would be dictated by whether or not he could defend at the top level. Fast forward four years and it’s clear that the Marlies coaching staff succeeded in developing Liljegren’s game in that department, to the point where his strong defence is often more noticeable than his offensive play.
There’s been a lot made of GM Kyle Dubas and his staff’s preference for prioritizing “hockey IQ” in their players and each of these two defenders have provided easy examples to point to when trying to assess what that means. They each seem to have fit seamlessly into the team’s system and when they play together they seem to think the game the same way. That shows itself in their support for each other, which is obvious each time they play together. Neither one seems to panic even when a mistake is made and they’re usually able to recover quickly.
They each seem to understand the other’s game very well and are quick to back up their partner as soon as it’s needed, regardless of where on the ice they happen to be. So often you’ll see one of them step up and knock a puck off an attacking player’s stick, then see the other one swoop in right behind to scoop up the puck. Once they have the puck, both defenders see the ice very well and are capable of transferring it up ice with possession.
Sandin gets more attention than Liljegren due to the fact he’s a year younger and at this point looks to have a higher offensive ceiling, but each player has thrived beyond expectations in the opportunities they’ve been given early on this season. Sandin, Dermott and Liljegren have been so effective in their minutes that former top-four staple Justin Holl has been scratched several times and legitimately looks like the team’s seventh-best defender at this point.
It’s almost always a good idea to draft Swedish defencemen and this Leafs duo is proving that sentiment.
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